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Reporter's Notebook: From both sides of the gates of Foxconn

8 a.m., Foxconn Longhua Facility, Shenzhen. An iPad assembly line leader conducts roll call. Nearly a quarter million people work at this facility, making it one of the largest factories in the world.

When they're not working, Foxconn workers can play soccer at the factory campus' soccer stadium, go swimming in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, or go work out at the gym.

Nets suspended twenty feet off the ground were installed in 2010, in the midst of a spate of suicides at the Longhua facility. To date, the nets have saved the life of one worker.

Louis Woo, Special Assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, stands at his desk in his spartan office at the company's Longhua facility.

A Foxconn worker on the iPad assembly line.

The first misconception I had about Foxconn’s Longhua facility in the city of Shenzhen was that I’ve always called it a ‘factory’  -- technically, it is. But after you enter the gates and walk around, you quickly realize that it’s also a city -- 240,000 people work here. Nearly 50,000 of them live on campus in shared dorm rooms. There’s a main drag lined on both sides with fast-food restaurants, banks, cafes, grocery stores, a wedding photo shop, and an automated library. There are basketball courts, tennis courts, a gym, two enormous swimming pools, and a bright green astroturf soccer stadium smack-dab in the middle of campus. There’s a radio station -- Voice of Foxconn -- and a television news station. Longhua even has its own fire department, located right on main street. This is not what comes to mind when you think “Chinese factory.”
 
Yet it is: as you walk beyond the civic center of Longhua, the buildings begin to change. You find yourself walking through alleys surrounded by looming factory buildings. You stop, look up, and they’re everywhere: the nets. In 2010, Foxconn installed thick netting on buildings throughout this campus. They jut out horizontally from the exterior walls, suspended 20 feet off the ground. They were a response to a string of suicides that year which plagued the company. Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, tells me that when they purchased these nets in the spring of 2010, the company wiped out the entire Asian supply of netting for weeks. That’s what happens when the world’s tenth largest employer makes a quick economic decision. I look up at them and think of the people who jumped. I tell Louis how depressing they look, just suspended up there, waiting to catch someone. “I don’t care how they look,” he tells me, “if we can save one life with these nets, they’re completely worth it.”
 
I ask him if the nets have saved lives. “After we installed the nets in the summer of 2010,” Louis says with a sigh, “two workers jumped. One of them died. The other lived.”
 
If there’s anyone who understands the life of a factory worker, it’s Louis. He worked his first factory job at the age of 12, in the early 1960s, in Hong Kong. His mother and father operated a food service inside a plastic flower factory. Each day, Louis and his family woke up at 6 a.m. He cooked food and washed dishes for multiple shifts of workers. He remembers punching out at 2 a.m. to sleep for four hours on the assembly line table before starting another shift. Louis later reentered school, and earned a spot at Stanford University, where he completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. These days, Louis has white, wispy hair, he wears wire-frame glasses, and he usually dresses business casual. But he still works around the clock as the main spokesman for the largest private employer in China. He shakes his head when I ask him why CEO Terry Gou hasn’t hired more PR help, given the size of the company and how Foxconn has been thrust over and over into the media spotlight. Louis tells me Terry Gou was always confident that Foxconn was doing the right thing, so he never thought he needed the help. “Until the spate of suicides in 2010 when Terry asked me to come in to help on this issue, we never hired a PR company,” he tells me. “Even two years ago, we were doing, what? Eighty billion U.S. dollars a year? I don’t think you can imagine any company anywhere in the world with the size of $80 billion of revenue a year without a PR company.”
 
I’m reminded of this frugality minutes later, when I visit Louis’ office. Drab yellow linoleum floors, white-paneled walls, a few tables, a few chairs, and a cheap, blue drape shutting out light from the outside. A quick tour of the campus, however, proves frugality has its limits at Foxconn. The company has spent millions on the aforementioned sports facilities, Internet bars, and organized activities for its workers.
 
But no matter how many diversions are available to workers, this is still assembly line work. Prior to my Foxconn and Apple-sponsored tour of the Longhua campus, I spent days outside the gates, without the presence of Foxconn management, talking to workers. We talked about the pay, the overtime, the conditions, and life back in their home village. We also talked about the general perception that Americans have of what conditions are like inside the factory. When I gave examples of some of the American media coverage of the working conditions at Foxconn, many workers laughed, telling me it’s not really that bad. Foxconn worker Zhang Dawei grew up in the impoverished countryside of Jiangsu Province. He asked me how Americans could even begin to understand the complexities of growing up poor in China, only to migrate to a factory thousands of miles away. “I’ve got a cousin who lives in the U.S., and from what I understand, the U.S. is a very rich country, at its peak; I can only dream of what it must be like. But China is so poor. I think it’s useless for us to judge each others’ countries without truly understanding the realities on the ground.”
 
But that doesn’t mean the workers don’t have complaints. One of the most common complaints I heard: being treated unfairly by immediate supervisors. Some workers complained about being forced to work even though they were sick. Others said their supervisors didn’t let them bill the overtime they had actually worked.  From dozens of interviews, favoritism seems common among Foxconn supervisors.  And, of course, nobody is a fan of the work. “It’s incredibly boring and repetitive,” an iPad assembly line worker named Xu told me, “but I just sort of lose myself a little while I do the work and think about other things; I think about happy moments in my life. My friends. My family. Anything. If I can do that, then the work doesn’t seem so tiring.”
 
Xu sends the equivalent of 3,000 U.S. dollars a year to his family in rural Hubei province. After three years here, he says he’s ready to go home next year. He thinks he’s saved enough to start his own construction business back in his home village; something small, he says, that’ll make him a little more money -- a little more money than what his parents made as farmers.

Tune into Marketplace next week as I delve deeper into the lives of these workers and take you behind the scenes of Foxconn. Visit our special project page: The Apple Economy.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

When they're not working, Foxconn workers can play soccer at the factory campus' soccer stadium, go swimming in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, or go work out at the gym.

Nets suspended twenty feet off the ground were installed in 2010, in the midst of a spate of suicides at the Longhua facility. To date, the nets have saved the life of one worker.

Louis Woo, Special Assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, stands at his desk in his spartan office at the company's Longhua facility.

A Foxconn worker on the iPad assembly line.

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According to a new press release by China Labor Watch, another Foxconn employee from their Zhengzhou factory where Apple's iPhone is assembled jumped off a building to his death last Tuesday. The news that was officially made public hours ago stated that this was the third employee from the same factory to have fatally jumped off of buildings in the span of the last 20 days. http://www.abcphotos.co.uk/

16-hour days for months at a time were not uncommon in college. Of course, there were three months during the summer for alternate work. My first year, I dug a ditch at a construction site. Only 8 hours a day of extremely physically-demanding work. I would lose myself in the work, and compose letters to friends or think of music projects.

I don't mean to say that I've worked as hard as a Chinese factory worker. But I can only use my own experience as I read this report. And so I believe their story: very hard work, yes, but totally believable. I hope their hard work leads to a better life for them all.

This is lousy reporting. You think you had a candid glimpse of conditions there when you were escorted by the CEO's assistant? What risks did you take to find out the truth, or to get behind the happy facade? Or were you too distracted by the tennis courts and swimming pools? North Korea has sports complexes for its citizens. So did the Soviet Union.

@AndymAndym
Except they are never used by the citizens. These seem to be used fairly well according to the pictures, and not in the North Korean military style. What do you propose he do, go all Indiana Jones? He spoke freely to workers leaving the factory with no supervision. He visited and spent time inside the facility where the size is so massive, it would be impossible to put up a "show" for a single reporter within its gates. He definitely did more "reporting" than that liar Mike Daisey. And I'm pretty sure he's a little too white to pose as a poor Chinese kid looking for work. Its the deliberate looking for "sensational" news that gets people into trouble with the truth. Sometimes, the truth is a little boring. Live with it.

Except they are never used by the citizens. These seem to be used fairly well according to the pictures, and not in the North Korean military style. What do you propose he do, go all Indiana Jones? He spoke freely to workers leaving the factory with no supervision. He visited and spent time inside the facility where the size is so massive, it would be impossible to put up a "show" for a single reporter within its gates. He definitely did more "reporting" than that liar Mike Daisey. And I'm pretty sure he's a little too white to pose as a poor Chinese kid looking for work. Its the deliberate looking for "sensational" news that gets people into trouble with the truth. Sometimes, the truth is a little boring. Live with it.

AndymAndym, I think you believe what you want to believe--that everybody and his uncle is an oppressed worker in China, so a report that says otherwise--you dismiss it. Read the other comments--the poor slob who works at Walmart here in America--do you think he's really that much better off?

Stop trolling!

Avg. salary in China, let's say, for a school teacher is about $400 ~ 600 a month, though it all depends on the geographic location. Yes, each of these teachers, on the avg. spent $5,000 a year to pay for a college tuition and thus, indeed have a college degree with years of working experience.

At the age of 18 without a high school diploma, a young Chinese worker can make the beginning salary of $14 a day that is based on 8 hrs of FT work, but they also work OT as common as it is for people here in the U.S or anywhere else in the world, in which it is something you'd simply understand the nature of business if you've ever actually held a job as an assembler including USPS.

$14 a day / 8hr = $1.75 an hr

$1.75 an hr x 8hrs = $14 a day + OT {$1.75 x *1.50 = $2.63 an hour) x 4 hrs = $10.50} = $24.50 a day

$24.50 a day x 6 days = $147 a week = $588 a month.

If he keeps working at this pace and by the time Foxconn doubles his hourly salary within a couple of years, an young worker can then make as much as $1,200 a month. Of course, you might think nobody can physically work that hard without stopping, though my mom exactly did that here in the U.S while working for USPS at night and serving food at public school during the day.

$500 is still more than an avg. salary of what a school teacher makes in China, yet that is what an 18 years old kid could make in the first month, though of course, in reality, he or she won't likely make that much in the first month as they have to earn that spot by working hard, learning fast, and ultimately making that goal dream come true. Either way, it is still more than what they can only dream of. Also, this isn't a job that they want to stay in for the rest of their lives. In China, an 18 years old can not afford to pay for a college tuition on his own even if he have 3 jobs, unless it is some sort of a government-related FT job, but then again, you have to pay the bills, whereas most of these factory workers save most of it right into their saving account, or their family. They eventually go back to their hometown and start their own business, though some may choose to go to school with the money they earned.

Did you or anyone else you know have ever managed to save more than $10,000 in the saving account before turning 20 years old? Or to make it simple, DO YOU ACTUALLY HAVE MORE THAN $10,000 IN YOUR SAVING ACCOUNT RIGHT NOW?

We all know that answer to that because we, American, don't save a lot and that is even harder thing to expect from someone who is barely 20 years old 'cause they gotta go to Cancun TO GET THEIR FUCK ON on a college loan, or perhaps go to Europe before ever having a full understanding of what the avg. of $50,000 college debt would have an impact on their lives within 6 months as soon as they are graduated from colleges. Well, these young Chinese kids surely do have enough money and in fact, can possibly afford to buy a new iPad, if they really have to, though most of them wouldn't be financially irresponsible.

There are 15 states in the U.S that have the minimum wage law set way below the federal standard ($7.50 an hr) and 3 of those states are not even mandating such laws and the rest of the states - including Puerto Rico -- have the minimum wage starting as low as $4.50 an hr.

At $4.50 an hour, you can make $750 a month before taxes. There are many small business owners, or people who look and talk just like you, in the U.S and they pay low-wage workers like Mexican with cash and this is how it works.

The avg. daily cash-salary for working at a Chinese restaurant ranges from $80 to $100, and yes, they work from open to close, so 12 hours a day w/ no OT or no hr wage. You wouldn't know this, unless you've worked in a such place for real. You just get paid $80 to work all day, and that is it. That's how millions of people living in America manage to put food on their tables, yet they don't get that kinda luxurious treatment these people working at Foxconn get. WHY?

If you are 18 and work as a cashier at Walmart, you can never get a FT job, and if you can manage to work FT they have no reason to pay you OT paid. The best chance of making money there for you is that you can work 40 hrs week. That equals about $8 an hour x 40 hrs a week x 4 = $1,280 a month before taxes. That's all you can make. If you really want to make more, yet have a hard time finding a job, especially if you can't speak English or for whatever the reason, feel less qualified to find a better job at the moment, that is what you do to survive.

Let's do the math. You work all day from open to close for about 12 hrs and makes $100, and you work 6 days a week. So, you make $600 a week without taxes, that is about $2,400 a month. That is more than twice of what you can make at Walmart. That's exactly what these factory workers choose to do, except they get more and work in a better environment. There is nothing wrong for an young ambitious dreamers to sacrifice a couple of years of his or her life to help out their family or make their dream come true in doing something big with the money they can manage to save and use later on.

STOP TROLLING, PLZ!

I am an american engineer and traveled to factories in Malaysia, Taiwan, and China from 1997 to 2005 - I've seen dozens. Rob's report is consistent with what I've seen. The work is boring and the hours are long, but it's better for the workers than what they left. Once at the factory the workers are provided everything they need: food, clothes, housing, etc. In the Pearl River Delta (where Foxconn is) the workers live at the factory. Near Shanghai, they don't. They can choose to come to work each day, or not. But they come and work in the same conditions. It's their choice and they choose to do it because it's better than what they left.
I've also worked in several US factories. I've seen assembly line workers forced to work 7 days in a row and until midnight on the last day, all so the factory could report high sales numbers for the month. One factory I was at required 50 hour weeks as the minimum! I'm aware of fires, explosions, and a fatality at the companies I've worked at in the US. Yes, China is worse, but US factories aren't perfect either.

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